Just before the summer of 1993, my brother Steve called me and
asked if I wanted a job for the summer. It was at the Hunt-Wesson plant in
Toledo where he worked as an engineer and I would help with tracking labor and
doing product tests around the plant. Back then, during the summer, the plant
went through a period called “The Fresh Pack” where fresh tomatoes were brought
in from the surrounding farms for three months straight so they could make
ketchup. The plant stayed open 24/7 and only closed down during Labor Day for
cleaning. I said, “Hell, yes,” packed my toothbrush, acid washed jean shorts, two-year-old
condom, and drove to Toledo, Ohio to go live with my brother for the summer.
The first thing I learned upon showing up at his house was
that he was living in sin with a pudding girl.
The second thing I learned walking in the door was my
brother’s relationship with Kelly, the previously aforementioned pudding girl,
was to remain quiet and that I was not to spill the tapioca about the secret
relationship between the big tomato and the pudding girl.
The Hunt-Wesson plant in Toledo made ketchup and it made
pudding. The people on the ketchup side did not interact with the people on the
pudding side and vice-versa. Well, they spoke with one another, but there was
not to be any cross ketchup/pudding interactions if you get my meaning. (I’m currently
raising my eyebrows up and down in a suggestive manner.)
I kept it a secret. But it was difficult. Kelly is very
pretty. In a pudding plant, there wasn’t much to look at, but Kelly’s beauty
reflected off the giant stainless-steel tanks, created flickering illusions
between the fast-moving foil sealed containers flying down the conveyor belt,
and made the railroad tankers of modified corn starch derail and dump their
contents all over the tracks in a cute, but embarrassing fashion. Rumors of a
ketchup guy like Steve dating a pudding girl like Kelly would be quickly
dismissed and swept away like a spilled tanker of modified corn starch. I mean,
come on… pudding and ketchup don’t go together.
But they did go together. And that is a story for another
day. For now, let’s go to Doug and Steve negotiating rent at the dinner table.
I was sitting at the dinner table with Steve in preparations
to negotiate rent. He brought out a piece of paper, two pens, and suggested that
we figure out what I was going to pay for room and board at his house per month
for the summer. This “rent” part of the deal was not mentioned when he said, “Come
to Toledo for a job.” He tore the paper in half and invited me to write down
what I thought was a fair dollar amount for a room and board. I wrote down a
number that was not generous, but reasonable. He wrote down his number. We
placed our numbers face down on the table and pushed them at each other. I
looked at his number. He looked at mine. He said, “Nice try. We’ll go with
mine.” I agreed because Steve was not someone you could disagree with unless you
were willing to spend a few hours failing at it.
At the ketchup plant, my job was pretty simple: catch people
trying to sneak in late, test the tomato pulp moisture, and check to see if the
temporary summer employees were throwing out the wrong kinds of tomatoes OR trying
to save ripe tomatoes from ketchup death via a Disneyesque escape. The people
coming in late is pretty easy to visualize. Checking the moisture was a
multi-step process, but I got to learn some Spanish. The tomato escape requires
a bit of explanation and ties in to part of the end of this story, so lean in
and listen closely to the tale of the ripe tomato…
The farmer surveys his tomato field. He is pleased. The
tomatoes are growing. Ripening. Alive! Their sickly green begins to transform
into a rosy pink that will someday become a brilliant, glowing red, like a hot
coal in a fire. But the farmer knows that he just can’t magically transport
ripe tomatoes to the ketchup factory. He’s got to time it perfectly: pick the
tomatoes as they ripen. Send them to the plant and time it so they are bright
red as they enter the factory gates; the bright red tomatoes ready to sacrifice
themselves to be made into ketchup so that a 7-year-old kid will eat his pork
chop once it is covered in that thick salty, sweet, acidic, red goodness. The
farmer knows that he will be paid based on how many tomatoes he brings, but
also on how many of them are peaking on ripeness. Green tomatoes are acidic and
evil. Overripe tomatoes have an abundance of sugar, which might sound like a
blessing, but no one wants an overripe tomato, just like no one wants an
overripe banana. The farmer does his best to time it perfectly: start the
harvest so that he can gather the tomatoes as they are ripening, but before
they get too ripe. And because you want to go to the ketchup plant with the
tomatoes you have and not the tomatoes you might want or wish to have at a
later time, he will pick the tomatoes a little too soon and a little too late
and ship them to the plant with the highest chance of bring him home the most
money. He sends off a truck filled with tomatoes, their ripeness changing like
the odometer on the truck, speeding off to Perrysburg, Ohio.
The truck arrives at the ketchup factory and immediately the
plant representative is suspicious of the truckload of tomatoes, because that
is his job. He takes a sample of the tomatoes from the truck and frowns, his
brow furrowing, reminding the tomatoes of their earthen home of dirt rows. He
and the driver get into a disagreement about if there are 80% ripe tomatoes or
only 8 out of 10 ripe tomatoes. In the end, they agree upon a price that
neither agrees with and the driver dumps the load of tomatoes from the truck
into a hopper. The tomatoes fall because gravity calls them, but they also know
they have a higher purpose. Slightly green, perfect red, and too red tip
earthward and follow the siren call of the center of the earth. Into darkness.
Conveyors take them forward through the darkness.
Inside the plant, the temporary workers, who think they have
a chance of getting into the union, sift through the never-ending parade of
multicolored tomatoes. Their job is to get rid of the green and really red with
black spots tomatoes. Green tomatoes might be great for lesbian movies, but in
a ketchup plant they are bitter with acids. The over-ripe tomatoes might seem
perfect, but they are bursting with sugar. Both ends of the spectrum are bad. They
grab the green, squish the really red, and drop them into chutes which lead to
a water filled trough that is a quick rafting trip to a dumpster which will
take those inedible fruits to the fertilizer or dog food plant. In the Toy
Story version of this tale, a green tomato and really red tomato would make
their getaway, instead of being turned into dog food, holding stems as they
float down the concrete trough.
The end product of this sorting is supposed to be a sea of
equally ripened tomatoes with an assumed pH level that can be divided by mass
and fill the recipe that my brother has spinning in his head. But the workers
miss some of the green and some of the really red. Odds would suggest they
would cancel themselves out, but reality doesn’t believe in odds and the pH tends
to lean one way or the twain. This can throw off any carefully prepared recipe
and make the pH wander.
In the ketchup kitchen, (really, it’s a cooking deck with
several giant stainless-steel tanks where huge volumes of tomatoes, high
fructose corn syrup, vinegar, spices and “natural flavors” are brought
together, mixed, heated and persuaded to turn into ketchup,) Steve is the
conductor to an orchestra of chemistry. Really, he’s a chef accountant, as
Steve’s job is to make ketchup, but he wants to do it using the smallest amount
of resources possible, saving the company money. OK, really, this was all about
Steve and how far he could walk the thin line between making ketchup and
There is a recipe to making ketchup. You put in the right
amount of everything in a certain order, cooking it at a certain temperature,
and then ketchup comes out the other end. But it can’t be ketchup until it
passes Quality Control. Quality Control says that ketchup must be in a within a
certain pH range. Quality Control knows the pH of the ketchup because Steve
will take samples during the cooking process, put them in the pneumatic
delivery system, and the QC Ladies on the low-pressure end of the system will
test the samples to see what that pH level is. And when Steve is sending down
the samples, they are wary and their language starts to trend to the
inappropriate. And they have good reason to be inappropriate.
Ketchup is acidic. Hunt-Wesson pays the Quality Control
people to make sure that rogue engineers, like Steve, wouldn’t make ketchup
that didn’t have that pH level that lived between (I’m guessing here) 3.48 and 3.98. They would get his samples, grit
their teeth, and measure the pH…
(pause to build excitement)
…and most of the time, the pH would be right in the middle
and all was good.
But sometimes, it was right on the edge or over. Those part
time tomato sorters wouldn’t be doing their job and the pH average would
teeter-totter from one side to the other. The QC team would get on the phone
and punch in the maestro’s number in the kitchen, “You are running high,
Steve would then consider his options. To lower or raise the
pH, Steve could add sugar or vinegar or any number of bulk ingredients. But
those bulk ingredients cost money. And money is money. So Steve would run that
fine line and try not to add any additional commodities, knowing that he could
cook down the acidity or add more tomatoes to raise it. But you couldn’t cook the
ketchup forever and you can only add so many addition tomatoes of unknown pH. If the pH was out of tolerance, they might have to dump the whole batch. That is that fine line.
At the tail end of the cooking process, Steve would send
down the last sample to be tested. He would then race behind it to the QC lab. I
was in the lab several times a day, doing moisture tests, so I could hear the
QC woman complain about Steve running the pH edge. Steve would come exploding
through the QC doors and quickly scan the area for his sample being tested.
QC woman, “…. 3.92!” Just within tolerance.
Steve would then take both his hands, raise them up above
his head, and pull down dual, imaginary slot machine handles and yell, “Cha-ching!”
He would then release a roar that was part laugh, half yell
and a bit of something I would later remember is called a “barbaric yawp.”
And then back to make the next batch.
On one occasion, I saw a QC lady making the “Cha-ching”
gesture when she was pissed off at Steve for running the pH too high. “… that
Steve coming down here with his cha-ching, cha-ching.”
Minutes later he raced
Steve, “What!” He ran to the phone and called up to the
cooking deck and told them to add X amount of Y to bring the pH into check to the lamentations
of the money people.
And then back to make the next batch.
I lived with Steve and Kelly for the rest of the summer. Steve
and I worked every day, he a 12 hour shift and me an 8. We compared paychecks one day and my gross
pay was what he was paying in taxes. (Note to self: in next life, become an
engineer.) I almost cooked their cat in the broiler. I drank a lot with my
friend Jeff and his law student buddies. Skinny and I got together once at the
Blind Pig. I learned a Spanish phrase that I will never forget from one of the
pulping machines, “No meta las manos en la máquina por la operación.” I learned
that the real union workers did not like to have their time cards pulled. And
lastly I learned that one of the hardest tasks in the world was to throw out
I’d like to think that there was some kind of magical end to
that summer. That my tomato had turned from green to red. My pH on the edge,
brought back into check with subtle acts of chemistry. But in the end, I think
I packed up my acid washed, cutoff jeans and left town, still green.
The big tomato and the pudding girl got married one year later. Cha-Ching.